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An Evening Among Headhunters

Lawrence Millman

Whack! Whack! Whack! Osvaldo's machete came down on yet another hapless snake. He proceeded to cut the snake into halves, quarters, and eigths, like carrots for stew. Thus far he'd dispatched at least two dozen snakes. Fer-de-lances, bushmasters, even the harmless grass snake, they were all victims of his egalitarian blade in his enthusiasm, Osvaldo must have dispatched a few liana vines and serpentine creepers, too.

At last I got upset with his sanguinary behavior and said so. Osvaldo replied:

"Have you lost a son to the bite of the bushmaster, Mr. Larry? I have lost such a son, and I now am making the snakes lose their sons. You understand?"

I understood, sort of, and from then on kept my mouth shut about snakes. But not, definitely not, about mud. For this was the height of the rainy season and the country through which we were passing--the country of the untsuri suara, as the Jivaro Indians call themselves--was not only dense jungle but also very dense mud. For three days our little expedition slipped and slid along the trail like a parade of spastic skaters. One step forward, two skids sideways, and a not altogether intentional tumble into the Ungamayo (luckily piranhaless). Occasionally we'd cross a balsa-log bridge that seemed to have been coated with grease just prior to our arrival. On one of these crossings our ethnobotanist Paul Cunnane slipped off and landed in a pool of swamp ooze, only to reappear moments later looking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. "Goddamsonafabitch," Cunnane said.

"Ah, another expletive for our peerless guide," declared Petrie. Osvaldo, part Jivaro and part Ecuadorian, was very eager to learn English-language swear words and Petrie had generously set himself the task of teaching them.

Ever onward we splashed and slopped, a quartet of white men en route to a rendezvous with the fabled Jivaro. At this rendezvous Cunnane planned to take natema (Banisteriopsis Caapi), the drug that puts the Jivaro in touch with their ancestors. He hoped to get in touch with a few of their ancestors himself, and then report on the visit for his ethnobotanical journal.

None of the rest of us was into drugs, at least not with the same degree of scholarly rigor. Petrie, as befits an anthropologist, preferred lascivious subjects like puberty rites and genital scarification. Lethbridge was a British Columbia museum curator who wanted to bring back a few chonta palm blowguns and curare darts, and perhaps a shrunken sloth's head or two for his special collections. As for myself, I was a humble writer, along for the so called "experience." My previous trip had been a trek into the Labrador outback, where I'd gotten lost, been eaten alive by mosquitoes and black flies, and strained at least two ligaments. This jungle adventure, I hoped, would equal and possibly surpass that one for sheer physical discomfort.

And discomfort there was, especially when we stopped, whereupon konga ants would come upto pay their respects to our respective persons.

"Osvaldo may not like snakes," Lethbridge observed, "but he doesn't seem to mind konga ants at all. You'll notice how he always picks their campsites for our campsite. . . ."

Lethbridge did not have a high regard for konga ants. The word "genocide" escaped from his lips whenever he referred to them. But then none of us had a particularly high regard for konga ants. They'd clamp their pincers into some exposed bit of skin, then inject their venom from a stinger in the rear of their abdomens. This venom, whose presence made itself felt for several hours, served to raise the decibel level of our expletives quite a few notches.

Osvaldo was thus highly versed in our vernacular by the time we reached a little clearing in the jungle. Here stood the Jivaro chacra, our destination. It was built of stout chonta palm staves set vertically in the ground an inch or so apart, with closely woven palm thatch for a roof. There were no windows, as the Jivaro think windows not only vulgar but also an invitation for four-legged and two-legged enemies to climb in.

We paused outside and Osvaldo shouted in falsetto: "Whee-dee! Whee-dee! There are four of us and we are friendly."

From inside the chacra came the reply: "Whee-dee! You are welcome."

And if we hadn't been welcome? Well, it's been twenty-five years since theJivaro shrank the heads of unwelcome guests to the size of meatballs. But even then, they didn't shrink the heads of white men because white men were not thought to possess souls. And the whole point of headshrinking was to render your enemy's soul small and manageable, Ue a rodent, upon its reincarnation. White men were rodents already.

So it was that we entered the chacra with a reasonable certainty that we'd leave it with our heads securely in place.

Once inside, we hunkered down on log benches and Osvaldo introduced us to the man of the house, Juanga. Juanga was dressed in green Adidas running shorts, a polyester Tshirt that advertised the Galapagos, and Wellington boots. He also had bone pins in both ears. We bowed our heads slightly in his direction (shaking hands, Osvaldo had warned us, is a summons to battle), and he bowed his own head toward each of us in turn. Half a dozen naked kids, the resident shaman, Juanga's brother CaJeke, leatherfaced elders, even some abject and scrawny dogs-all studied us intently. With our designer bush costumery and various ethno-appurtenances, we were real weird, man.

Now Juanga's wife dipped a gourd into a bucket of nijamanchi (Spanish: chicha) and offered it to Juanga, who drank it and gave the gourd back to her, thus demonstrating for us guests that it wasn't poisoned. She filled the gourd again and this time offered it to Osvaldo, who drank it even as he carefully averted his eyes from her face. It is considered quite rude for a guest to acknowledge ajivaro woman.

Nijamanchi is home brew. Home brew. It's made of manioc root that's been chewed to a pulp by the woman of the house. The woman's oral bacteria contribute to the fermentation process, a fact which Lethbridge, for one, did not appreciate. He refused the gourd. As he did, he invoked the wide range of germs, some lethal, others merely dangerous, that the brew doubtless harbored. But Osvaldo got back the gourd and forced it on him.

"It is very bad manners not to drink," Osvaldo said.

"And bad manners are a crime the Jivaro punish by death," added Petrie cheerfully.

Lethbridge drank. Now it was my ,turn. The woman brought the gourd and I took a few tentative sips. Not bad, not bad at all. It made me think of a mixed marriage between buttermilk and beer, with a delicate aftertaste of saliva. I drank the entire gourd and the woman returned to the bucket and filled it again. I tried to indicate that I didn't want any more, but that isn't easy when you're scrupulously looking every which way but at the person whose attention you're trying to get.

One thing about nijamanchi: it gives your bladder a full workout. A very short while after the woman fmally presented the gourd to Cunnane, I rose to go outside. And as I left chacra, the Juanga's youngest son got up and joined me beside the nearest chonta palm. He was observing theJivaro custom that requires that a member of the family accompany a guest on his trip to the lavatory and chat amiably with that guest whilst he answers nature's call. The boy and I could not chat amiably since we didn't share a common language, but at least we were keeping up appearances.

When we got back, the boy uttered a few words in Shuar, the Jivaro language, to Osvaldo.Osvaldo turned to me and said:

"What's wrong with your penis?"

"Inertia, mostly."

"No, the boy says part of it is missing."

As best I could, I explained the role of circumcision in my culture, citing the no doubt superannuated reasons for its latter-day practice. A look of incredulity crept across Osvaldo's face. Lopping off a man's head was one thing, but lopping off a portion of his virile member seemed to be quite another. I had no choice but to step back outside and expose myself again. Osvaldo's incredulity did not go away.

In our absence the story of my missing foreskin had gone the rounds of the chacra, and upon our return there was a loud riff of giggling and tittering, primarily by women, at my expense. Even a couple of naked toddlers seemed to be laughing and pointing at me. Evidently it was not bad manners to ridicule guests if they happened to be, like myself, freaks of nature.

"This guy's a laughingstock in his own country, too," said Petrie. Osvaldo translated for the others.

"You're going to get a very nasty letter from my lawyer when we get back," I told Petrie.

Meanwhile the shaman had gone outside with Cunnane and now he came back to report that Cunnane's member, unlike mine, was intact.

"Mr. Cunnane's parents took him to a different brujo," I explained, and went on to say that the Irish obser-ve habits and customs that the rest of us find a little eccentric. This statement Osvaldo dutifully translated, but I might as well have been talking about floppy disks or cast-iron lawn ornaments. Among whites the Jivaro make no distinctions. Except for me. I'd become an instant anthropological specimen.

The shaman gestured toward my crotch.

"The brujo wants to know whether you are maybe a type of homosexual," Osvaldo said.

"I'm not any type of homosexual. Why does he think that?"

"Because there is an old legend among our people. Many years ago one of our gods was a homosexual. He had a very long penis, maybe a hundred or so feet, and he kept putting it into other men. The sun god Etsa thought it wasn't right for him to do this, so he snapped most of it off. What he snapped off became the grandfather of all the poisonous snakes in the world."

"Please tell the brujo that my penis has never been snapped off by any sun god." He related this information to the shaman, who immediately replied in Shuar. Then Osvaldo said, "He will be glad to restore your missing part-for a price."

"What price?"

"One stereo cassette tape recorder."

Politely but firmly I declined the offer, though I must say I did wonder what hocus-pocus, sleight of hand, or medicinal herbs the shaman would have called upon to bring back my long-lost prepuce.

Dinner was announced and at least temporarily brought a halt to this mockery of my physique. On the dirt floor Juanga's wife had set a huge banana frond and we helped ourselves to a spread of fish, yams, taro root, and manioc, all boiled in the same pot and tasting pretty much the same way. On the other hand, the roasted howler monkey had a curious and piquant flavor which, according to Petrie, was not dissimilar to roasted Homo Sapiens. He should know. Once, on a field trip to Irian Jaya, he had unwittingly eaten a piece of dead warrior whom one of his ethno-subjects had killed. It wasn't bad, he told us.

While we ate, Cunnane fasted. An hour after dinner the shaman was ready with the natema.Cunnane was instructed to remove his clothing.

"Have a good trip, mate," Petrie said.

First Curmane inhaled a greenish nasal snuff (tsangu), which made him grimace, and then he took a nip of natemi, which made him throw up. This the Jivaro would argue was not so much throwing up as it is getting rid of one's evil spirits. Cunnane took more nips and got rid of more evil spirits. His last batch of evil spirits the shaman personally disposed of, putting his mouth to Cunnane's navel and then spitting, sucking, and again spitting, an action which brought a ripple of merriment from the kids in the chacra. They'd never seen their shaman siphon off a white man's evil spirits before.

Thus purged, Cunnane drank a bit more natemi. The shaman shook a dried barbasco sprig over him and chanted something that sounded to my untutored ear suspiciously close to "Singin' in the Rain."

"By now you should be floating above your body," Osvaldo said.

"I'm not floating anywhere," Cunnane protested.

"Then perhaps you are seeing some wild animals? Jaguars, for example."

"Nope. Nothing."

Natemi has powerful hallucinogenic alkaloids that produce a narcotized state not unlike the mescaline of the peyote cactus. A good trip often includes visions of fighting jaguars or other heroic beasts; a bad trip, visions of gigantic spiders with hairy twisted faces. As the evening wore on, it became apparent that Curmane's trip included nothing more dramatic than an upset stomach, of which he kept complaining. The natema, he said, had the same effect on him as a greasy pizza. Petrie took his pulse. It was normal.

"You are really not seeing jaguars?" Osvaldo said.

"I am not even seeing the common alley-cat," Cunnane replied.

Now Osvaldo and the shaman got into a discussion in Shuar. I assumed Osvaldo was telling him that he'd given his charge, instead of the usual ancestral fix, indigestion. The discussion turned into an argument, which turned into a shouting match, at least on Osvaldo's side. The shaman himself only shrugged and shook his head decisively. At one point I thought Osvaldo was going to hit him. Fortunately, he didn't. To hit a Jivaro shaman would be rather like decking the Pope. Very bad juju.

Osvaldo told us the problem. Cunnane had received only one-quarter the recommended dose of natema, which was not enough to get a konga ant high, let alone a full-bodied ethnobotanist. The shaman refused to give him more because he had no idea of what a white man could tolerate. White men were different from you and me, and an overdose might scramble Cunnane's brains for good, possibly even kill him. And then the Ecuadorian government would not be happy.

"Who cares if the government is happy?" said Petrie.

"The brujo cares,'"Osvaldo said. "He went to jail some years ago because he took another man's head, and he does not wish to go to jail again."

"Tell the brujo that I'll take full responsibility for anything that happens." Cunnane said.

But it was too late. The shaman had already gathered his effects into a dilly-bag and recanted the rest of the natema. I caught one last glimpse of his primal Asiatic face before he left. A face whose lines were folded and then folded again into a ruinous splendor. The face of a man much saddened by these headless modern times.

One by one my companions turned in. just before I joined them, I went outside to answer the call of my bladder. It was a lovely night, with the Southern Cross pinned three-dimensionally to the sky, and the other stars like a sprinkle of sugar. Monkeys screeched, frogs croaked, insects creaked. This time my lavatorial companion was Juanga's brother Cajeke, a man built like a sumo wrestler. As I stood there and relieved myself, suddenly CaJeke raised his machete.

Holy shit I thought. Is he going to replay the myth of the sun god on my poor abused organ of generation? The machete came down WHACK! on a five-foot fer-de-larice slithering toward me, now just a few paces away, from across the manioc patch. The blow neatly severed the snake, whereupon both halves writhed convulsively and grew still.

From now on, I decided, I'd always be grateful for the etiquette of head- hunters.

Originally published in the February 1990 issue of Boston Review


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